Egyptians have began casting their votes for a new head of state in the first presidential election since president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011.

Mubarak led Egypt for more than 30 years, prompting Egyptians to nickname him the Pharaoh. Decades of economic stagnation, state-led oppression and endemic corruption gradually led to a build-up of tensions, which culminated in the revolution.

"In the last few years of the regime, it became increasingly difficult for me to envision the country moving forward. There was just too much corruption," Youssef said.

"Protests were severely repressed in the 1990s, but they resurfaced in 2000 in support of Palestine and in 2003 against the war in Iraq.

"The turning point, however, was 2005. Several youth groups started to become more active. While they were using the internet to mobilise the population, they also organised protests in the streets. This time the protests were focused on domestic problems," she explained.

Most protests continued to be repressed and it remained dangerous to criticise power in public, an act that could result in arrest and torture.

"The culture of dissent had become more visible by 2010. That year in Alexandria a 28-year-old man, Khaled Saeed, was beaten to death by the police. There were protests across Egypt and in Alexandria more than 2,500 people gathered, dressed in black, facing the sea and protesting through silence" she said.

These were the first signs of the 2011 revolution that would see Mubarak step down from power in February, following almost three weeks of mass protests. In January, Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had already been forced out of office following popular discontent and protests.

"We were looking at Tunisia and thinking: if they can do it, so can we.

Protests and the state

"There was a sense of euphoria in the firsts few weeks of protests. After Mubarak stepped down, we hoped the worst was behind us. We thought that if you fight hard for something, then you can achieve it. Most of all it felt like it [the mass protests] should have happened a long time ago," Youssef recalled.

"From 25 January until Mubarak stepped down, I felt really safe in Cairo when I took part in the protests. People were helping each other a lot. The insecurity was mainly instigated by the state. There is a difference between criminals and crimes that are facilitated by those in office."

As an example, Youssef cited the case of Major General Mohamed El-Batran, head of the prison sector in Egypt, who was killed on 29January at El-Kat prison in Qalibuiya governorate. His family said he had been deliberately killed by police officers after he refused to follow orders from the interior ministry to release prisoners in a bid to spread chaos across the country. The accusations were supported by the autopsy report.

"When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) took power, however, the feelings of fear and insecurity returned, the mood changed," she said.

Sexual assault and the faces of the revolution

After Mubarak was forced from office, the army stepped in. It soon became apparent that Scaf was determined to remain in charge despite mass protests calling for power to be transferred to civilian rule.

Photos and footage emerged of protesters being arrested, beaten up and tortured by the police. Women were also targeted and subjected to violence, torture, sexual assaults and threats of rape.

French television journalist Caroline Sinz was brutally assaulted by a mob close to Tahrir Square, while US-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy was sexually and physically assaulted during a 12-hour ordeal at the interior ministry.

Further accusations of sexual assault surfaced after Samira Ibrahim, a 25-year-old Egyptian, was detained by Egyptian soldiers, who subjected her and other female protesters to forced "virginity tests". The young woman refused to suffer in silence and sued the military.

In December, a civilian judge ruled the practice was illegal, but in March a military tribunal acquitted the doctor who was alleged to have performed the examinations.

Egypt: A revolution still in motion?

Despite fresh presidential elections this week, with a run-off expected in June if there is no outright winner; Egypt is still struggling to define its future. Last year's parliamentary elections saw the Islamists dominate parliament and the new president will be elected without a clear constitution defining his powers.

Post-revolution Egypt is often described as a country polarised between Islamists and secular liberals.

"The Islamists vs secular debate was not the focal point at the beginning of the revolution, but the divide has been greatly encouraged by the regime. This debate has been going on in Egypt for more than 100 years. With so many different forces at play, it is difficult to see which political parties use a political discourse to get votes." Youssef said.

"As the long as the military still firmly holds the reins, the presidential elections will make little difference. I do not believe in a process that will only paint a democratic sheen on an authoritarian monster and, frankly, see the problem [in Egypt and elsewhere] as going much deeper than the cursory game of democratic representation. So what I'll probably do is go to the polls and scribble 'down with military rule' on my voting card."

What has the revolution really changed then?

"The real change has come through the opening up of the public sphere, where there is more space for debate and discussion. People now talk about politics in their homes, as well as on TV and in the media. I have even seen a report on TV about corruption in the military, which would not have happened before. The media can still be manipulated and the connection between private and state media remains unclear, but more things can now be said in the open."

Summing up at this juncture, Youssef said: "We are still far from a just society or just representation of the people. Most of the protesters who took to the streets last year were people who felt they were not represented. Now, at least, all the different factions talk about the revolution, their will to be represented and to be more involved in national processes."